Tag Archives: Cold War

Childhood Fears – The Bomb, Driver’s Ed and Amtrak

My corner of the internet is busy debating the impact of “active shooter” drills and other safety measures on the mental health of children. One author asked if any other generation of American children has known so much fear. Symptoms of anxiety are becoming widespread.

I remember my fear of The Bomb. I was born in 1949. By the time I was in elementary school, the Cold War was in full swing. The arms race was hot. By age 8, I participated in “flash drills”. I was taught to “duck and cover”, but it wasn’t at all clear what that meant. Protect the back of my neck? When the local emergency siren sounded it’s weekly test (noon on Saturday), I flopped down with my face in the grass with my arms protecting my head. I wasn’t frightened.

Things gradually ramped up. I lived near Hartford, Connecticut, and I was told Hartford was probably a nuclear target because of an aircraft factory (Pratt and Whitney). I knew that bombs were delivered by airplanes, so the air traffic in and out of Hartford’s Bradley Field and along the northeast corridor frightened me. Then I was told that the planes that delivered bombs were up so high that we wouldn’t hear them. This didn’t exactly help. I was afraid of invisible radiation.

Things came to a head one day. My mother was cooking dinner using the pressure cooker. (Nothing like having a bomb in your kitchen.) The valve got blocked. Fortunately there was a safety valve, which popped loose. The escaping steam made a loud, horrible, screeching, completely unfamiliar metal-on-metal sound. Assuming we had been bombed, I panicked and headed for the basement at a dead run. My mother intercepted me, explained the problem in the kitchen and helped me settle down. I’m lucky. No one mocked me. I’ve shared this as a funny story from my childhood. But it wasn’t funny.

We lived with fear. My parents, survivors of the Depression and World War II, didn’t tell us everything was going to be okay.

How did I “get over” my fear? I learned denial! Hey, we all use it. If we really thought about all the things that can go wrong in life, none of us would get out of bed. Surely we wouldn’t get into automobiles or airplanes. Not today, we tell ourselves. Not in my town. Not me. I first utilized denial the summer I was eleven. I was going to Girl Scout camp for two weeks. It’s hard to explain how happy and excited I was! And I thought “The Russians won’t drop the bomb while I’m at camp.” So I forgot about it, set it aside, and went off to spend two weeks in a tent. It was great. What’s wrong with denial, if it makes it possible to live with something you can’t change?  I knew perfectly well nothing had actually changed between the US and Russia.

I remember the controversy, when I was in high school, over gory auto accident movies. My high school offered Driver’s Education. Some movies went to extremes – showing decapitation, etc. Some teachers insisted everyone had to watch all the blood and guts. Other teachers allowed some students to be excused. I don’t remember the details. I wonder what is current practice. I do know there’s some educational research that may help those who make these decisions. Does putting a wrecked car in which a young person died in front of the high school reduce that chance of prom night tragedies? I wish I knew.

Here’s another experience I want to share, from the perspective not of a child but of a parent. The threat in question was train safety. Amtrak, understandably, wants to keep people (especially children) OFF THE TRACKS. One of their approaches (early 1990s) was to show a safety movie, and one target captive audience was children in schools near train tracks, most of which are not fenced. (Never mind that NO child in our town crossed a track to walk to school.) My son was traumatized. The movie was very upsetting. As a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to see the film, and, yes, it was shocking. After some general safety discussion (don’t walk on the tracks, look both ways if you must cross), the film showed two children on the tracks. One has boasted that he will stand on the tracks until the train “almost” hits him. Another child tries to pull him off. With a roar and screaming whistle, the train thunders toward them and the screen goes black. I’ll bet my son wasn’t the only child to get upset.

A school shooting is a different type of threat. Parents and teachers are straining themselves to the utmost figuring out how to help and protect today’s children.

So much to consider… children need to learn train safety, fire safety, pedestrian safety, and now, some things about firearms. Our responsibility as adults is to protect children and, over time, teach them to protect themselves. It’s not easy.

We all experience fear. Parents and educators face incredibly difficult decisions. We need to talk.

We are all in this together. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

“The Candy Bombers – The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour” by Andre Cherny

Before I write about this book, some personal history…

I spent the summer of 1971 in West Berlin, inside the Wall, working as an intern at the Institute of Nuclear Research (translation approximate). Once, from a train, a Berliner pointed out a big cube of boxes or barrels stacked in a freight yard. It was covered by a tarp. “In case the Russians blockade us again. But we don’t actually know if the food is still good,” he said. That was my introduction to the Berlin blockade and the airlift.

From my point of view, living inside the Wall carried a distinct undercurrent of cold war fear. The Wall was 10 years old and had reached its full physical magnitude (I think). It consisted of…

  • Cinderblock or brick
  • concrete pipe on top mounted to roll so one could not scramble over
  • Barbed wire
  • 25 meter “death strip” raked so any footprint would show and probably mined
  • Guard towers manned by soldiers in groups of three, so one couldn’t hold another at gun point and back across the border into the West
  • And maybe there were dogs

I socialized with an international group of students, and was the only American present most of the time. We all spent time with Germans, mostly but not always younger ones, at our workplaces. We believed that the East German guards at the Wall were under orders to shoot (attempted escapees) to kill, but not to let their gunfire go into the Western zone. I met people who had escaped from East Berlin. It was accomplished by bribery. Physical assault type crossings had become impossible by 1971.

When I was preparing for my summer in Berlin, I read a good deal. I had to stop reading about World War II. I found it too upsetting. I decided to take Berlin as I found it in May of 1971. I had a wonderful summer! Better than wonderful – educational, magical, exciting, enlightening. Every student should be so fortunate.

At some point (after my trip to Berlin) I had read a novel about the airlift, and I was curious to find out if what I remembered from that book (by James Michener? Leon Uris?) reflected a historian’s “reality”. It wasn’t far off. The novelist made it more “exciting” and better organized, and missed the fact that the US military wasn’t enthusiastic about the airlift. They never intended to do what they did, both in terms of magnitude and duration.

The Candy Bombers is a WONDERFUL book. I got a little confused by the number of individuals profiled. Minor quibble…

Context: When Germany was conquered and occupied at the end of WW II, the four allied powers divided the county into zones, with the Russians controlling roughly the northeast quarter of the country. The Russian zone included the capital, Berlin, and that sprawling city was ALSO split into four zones. So the Western powers (France, Britain, USA) controlled the West Berlin “enclave” completely surrounded by the Russian zone, later known as East Germany or DDR.

This arrangement was unstable from the beginning. In June of 1948, the Russians decided to evict the Western powers from Berlin. They blocked all access except by air, expecting the other occupiers to pull out in a matter of weeks. The Western powers, angered by the Russian action, started supplying themselves by air. Somehow, this evolved into an attempt to supply the entire sector with food and later coal. It seemed impossible, and nearly failed. But, probably to the surprise of the Western powers, the Berliners in the three Western zones hated Russia so much that they were willing to starve rather than turn to the Russians for food. The West Berliners and the Western occupiers unexpectedly became allies.

This book contains the sort of climax or epiphany seldom found in nonfiction. The author describes the utter bleakness of November and December, when planes crashed and the weather was bitterly cold and hunger set in. But in the chapter entitled “November” there is a section called “And yet…”

  • “And yet…in later years, Berliners…would (also) remember those months at the end of 1948 as among the most special of their entire lives…” p. 471

Why on earth?? Because the Berliners and Americans found a common cause and fought with all their strength to keep West Berlin from the Russians. Because the airlift caught the attention, first of soldiers and later of American citizens who wanted to feed hungry children. Donations flooded in, and the military went into overdrive, accomplishing a logistical miracle. “Candy bombing”, dropping candy to children, was started by a pilot who fully expected, when identified, to be disciplined for violation of many regulations.

I found gaps in this book, mostly pertaining to the time between the end of the war and the beginning of the blockade. My questions have much to do with the occupation, since I would like to better understand what has happened over the past 15 years in the Middle East.

My main question about the occupation of Berlin is WHAT WERE WE THINKING? How long did we plan to starve the children of Germany? A child’s ration was 200 calories per day.

I have no idea how to ask these questions. I’m no historian, nor even a very serious reader. The author of The Candy Bombers has a website, but I hesitate to attempt dialog.

What happened during the airlift was a TRANSFORMATION. A survivor wrote, “Things turned out in a way nobody could easily believe.”

“Transforming power” is sometimes a secular code word for God. And that’s the core of “liberal Christian” faith, the belief that transformation can happen. The Candy Bombers documents a transformative event of incredible magnitude. Berlin, of course, didn’t stay in the state of “grace” to which the airlift brought it. But the amazing fact of what happened remains.

At the end of the airlift “America’s strength was…an undisputedly moral voice”. My greatest wish for our country is that we might, once again, speak with that moral voice.

I originally read this book in November of 2008.

“Sweet Tooth: A Novel” by Ian McEwan

This book should be called “A Novel of the Cold War”, or perhaps be identified as a spy thriller. The scene is London. Our young heroine (Serena) stumbles into the web of the British domestic surveillance agency and goes to work as the lowliest of clerks. She doesn’t know that one of her boyfriends was suspected of passing information to the Soviets, and hence she is under suspicion. She is quite a rule breaker and risk taker herself.

When Serena finally gets put onto a “project”, the plan is to support writers of a certain conservative political persuasion. She falls wildly in love with the man she is ordered to “recruit”. 

Add “atmosphere” and a plot twist that totally surprised me, and you have a good, absorbing novel. I will return to this author.